All Behaviors Communicate: Classroom Teacher Awareness Activity

Students - especially students with disabilities - may interact with the world differently.  As Teachers of the Visually Impaired (TVIs), we have all worked with the student who has shut down, refusing to communicate in expected ways. Some students refuse - or can't - use words to express when they are feeling overwhelmed. These students may use their behavior to communicate what they cannot say with words.

It is often challenging for others to understand what a student may be feeling. This powerful activity may help others take one step in the student's shoes. The following hands-on activity can be used in mainstream teacher training, parent training or even with peer/student training. 

All Behaviors Communicate Activity

This activity can be done with any size group.

  • Ask participants to pair off
  • Each pair should decide who is the student and who is the teacher
  • Ask the "teachers" to stand up
  • Take all the "teachers" to go into another room 
  • Instruct the "teachers" to think of ways to introduce themselves to their student without saying a word (give them time to think about this)
  • Instruct the "students" to put their head on the table, close their eyes and not to respond when the "teachers" come back into the room
  • Instruct the "teachers" to go to a "student" - that is NOT their original student - preferably someone they do not know
  • Give "teachers" time to try to interact with their new "student" and to try to introduce themselves

The room should be completely silent during this activity and the activity should continue until people have run out of ideas and are slightly uncomfortable.

When the activity is complete, ask "students" what they felt, including what his/her "teacher" did and how this made him/her feel.  Then, ask the "teachers" what they felt - what the/she tried, how his/her "student" responded, and how they - the "teacher" - felt.


The responses will vary with different groups. Most teachers with TVI or special education background approached the student quietly and gently touched the student. Here are some of the common responses:

  • "Students" expected the same partner - many students were anxious about a new person that they did not know
  • Some "students" relaxed when the "teacher" gently touched or rubbed their back, shoulder or arm
  • Some "students" felt 'violated' by the touch and recoiled or pushed the "teacher" away (or wanted to recoil/push away)
  • Some "students" said that they were more tuned-in to the environment - even sounds of the AC turning on/off startled them and some were anxious when the "teachers" walked past them
  • Some "students" were anxious not knowing what the "teacher" was going to do
  • "Teachers" felt powerless or anxious when the "student" did not respond
  • Some "teachers" were uncomfortable touching a student they did not know - especially not knowing how the student might react (afraid the student might become upset, agitated, violent)
  • Some "teachers" tried to introduce themselves by a symbol (ring, watch, etc.) similar to introducing themselves to a deaf/blind student
  • Some "teachers" tried to draw their name on the student's back
  • Some "teachers" felt unprepared - they had planned on signing, gesturing, writing, making eye contact, etc. with the student but these things did not work with the unresponsive "student"
  • Some "teachers" stated in the wrap-up discussion that they would not approach a new student without first knowing more about the student's likes/dislikes, observing what the student responded to with other people, and to have objects that might be interesting so that the student would want to engage
  • When his/her "student" did not respond, individual "teachers" began looking around the room for guidance/information from other "teachers"
  • Some "teachers" felt uncomfortable when the 'activity' they had planned did not work and variations of the activity also did not work; some "teachers" felt like they had 'failed'
  • One "teacher" noticed that her "student" did not like to be touched and dramatically pulled away. That "teacher" tried knocking on the table; "student" later told us that knocking 'caught her attention'.  The "teacher" went on to lightly brush against the student's fingernail. "Student" was okay with that touch.

Wrap-Up Discussion

The wrap-up discussion showed that different "students" reacted differently to similar stimuli. Some students liked the individual attention ("teacher" touching him/her) while others did not. Some "teachers" were more comfortable with the situation and were able to follow the subtle clues that the student provided. Some "teachers" were uncomfortable with the amount of time waiting to see if the student would respond; while some "students" became more comfortable as they were given time to relax with the "teacher". During the wrap-up discussion, teachers and students both felt like they could relate better to non-responsive students.

This activity was conducted by Dr. Mary Zatta in her Behavior session at the South Carolina AER 2017 Conference.

Read more about: Assistive Technology, Behavior